Sunday, November 29, 2009

Middletown and Quakers

I recently read Middletown in Transition, a 1937 sociological study of Muncie Indiana that focused on the many changes brought to the town--the subject of a 1920s study-- by the Depression and the New Deal. Several thoughts on this book: I had an early edition, if not a first edition, so that lent a physicality to the reading experience. I held the raw text, with no frame to contextualize it, no handy "updates," no modern introductions. The "World War" is still the one and only world war. The 1890s are a point of reference. The footnotes are at the bottom of the page, complete with ibids and op cits. I found that reading an unmediated text made the work seem more "authentic," probably in the same way that looking at a second century scrap of papyrus with a fragment from the gospels renders that more immediate.

Several things stuck with me from the book, which I've had to return to the library, so can't refer to. First, how similar the situation then is to now, especially the recurring optimism or, more precisely, desperate hope, that everything is on the brink of--or in fact is--bouncing back to normal, all our hairs back in place. The book stops at 1935, a year in which both the authors and the people of Muncie assume that the Depression is over! It sounds so much like now, when we are told the recession has ended, despite the skyrocketed unemployment rate and record numbers of people using food stamps.

A huge difference between then and now lies in the fact that the New Deal safety net, then a radical concept, is more or less in place, which has meant we haven't experienced the extreme collapse, desperation and ruin of those times.

What struck me most, however, was how little thinking has changed in 70 years! It's remarkable. Many in Muncie were convinced that the New Deal was going to destroy the world! Bring down America! Reward sloth. Mark the end of civilization as we know it! Of course, the same people who saw the mark of Cain or the first phase of the apocalypse in the New Deal were quick enough to take the money, in the form of WPA and CCC projects, systemized government relief programs and even the beginnings of social security. Many attacked FDR but realized at the same time that the money brought a great deal of immediate, tangible benefit to the community! So I wonder, when we see the proven value of social security and unemployment insurance, food stamps, and government investment in roads and other infrastructure--and the prosperity these brought, particularly after World War II --that some persist in attacking these programs. As I read the book, I couldn't help feeling a bit frustrated at how little this country has moved ideologically in 70 years, which means we have to keep refighting the same old battles. On the other hand, we do now accept as normal programs, such as the above-mentioned, that were radical innovations in the early 1930s.

This gets back to class issues: In Middletown in the early 1930s, social classes were stratified, with a wide gulf between the working classes and the "business" class, as it's called. Then, as now, the working class was hardest hit by the economic crisis.

Class keeps popping up for me in different places. My cyberfriend Ellen Moody from the Jane Austen and women's lit world is sensitive to class issues in what we read, and I appreciate how quick she is to point out, for instance, that "genteel poverty," such as experienced by "marginal" women in Jane Austen's world was quite different from working class poverty. Class issues come up repeatedly in the Quaker blogosphere. Class issues have emerged for me recently in children's literature. Perhaps because of the recession, I am more sensitive these days to my own class privilege.

For Quakers, sensitivity to class issues, and our own classism, is a natural concern, as equality is a core value. As Quakers have long recognized, erasing arbitrary and unfair distinctions between people builds a stronger society. It seems to me rather than make everyone like us, we need to support people in being who they are, which means, for example, higher pay for people engaged in labor that we need, but which doesn't require a college education. What do you think?

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